The Fifteeners

Eclipse of the sun, 1491



Incunabula at
The Francis A. Countway
Library of Medicine




The Fifteeners: The Earliest Printed Books

Incunabula or incunables are the very first examples of books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed with moveable type in Western Europe. They range from the very first examples of the two-column Latin Bible produced by Johann Gutenberg in the 1450s to works printed through the end of the year 1500. The term "incunable" derives from the Latin word cunabula for "cradle" or "origin", hinting at their status as the earliest of all books. Incunabula are also sometimes referred to as "fifteeners" from their appearance in the fifteenth century.

The tree of knowledgeDespite their European origins, incunabula can be found in library collections throughout the United States today, with the greatest concentration in the Library of Congress. While the largest collection of fifteeners at Harvard—more than 2,600 titles—may be found in Houghton Library, the Countway Library of Medicine, with over 800 items, holds the largest collection of medical incunabula in this country and one of the finest collections of this type in the world.

In 2002, the Countway Library embarked on an ambitious and long-needed project to describe and catalog fully its holdings of incunabula and make online descriptions of these items accessible to scholars and researchers for the first time. All of the books and woodcuts in this exhibit have been drawn from the collections of the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library and have one common element—each is at least five hundred years old. The Fifteeners highlights some of the extraordinary treasures in the Countway's incunabula collection and allows the public a glimpse of these rarest of printed medical works.

The Library That Never Was

Many of the essential medical texts in Europe were known and circulated in manuscript copies, but the development of moveable type allowed for swift and inexpensive reproduction of printed material and a consequent spread of common medical knowledge. The first medical texts to be printed were editions of Greek and Roman works, such as the De medicina of Celsus and the writings of Hippocrates and Galen, but by the end of the fifteenth century, new and original treatises in medicine and surgery begin to appear—books that have themselves become classics of medical history.

A 15th century medical libraryWhen the Boston Medical Library and Harvard Medical Library allied to form the Countway Library of Medicine in 1965, the rare books of both collections were brought together in one repository to form an extraordinary treasure house of medical history. The holdings of the Harvard Medical Library include some ten incunables in its Warren Library, and a few additional volumes have been acquired by the Countway by purchase and gift since its opening. But the great majority of the incunables here belong to the Boston Medical Library, and these volumes represent an unusual effort to build a library that never was—a working medical collection of a scholar of the Renaissance period in the United States. The annual report of the Boston Medical Library for 1930 outlined the intention behind its acquisition of incunabula in this way: "It is to be noted that every book added to the collection is in conformity with a definite plan formulated for the building up of a replica of an independent medical library of the late 15th century." So numerous were the acquisitions and so varied were the holdings that, by 1944, it was asserted that at least one edition of virtually every book of medical interest produced before 1501 could be found in the Boston Medical Library's collection.

Medical knowledge in the fifteenth century encompassed matters far beyond the scope of modern medicine, and so any attempt to replicate a medical library of that period meant collecting works in a wide range of subjects. While standard texts in anatomy and surgery would be the obvious foundation of such a library, botanical books, for their influence on pharmacy, would also need to be included. Along with dictionaries and vocabularies, such a library would contain works in the allied fields of science, such as mathematics and astronomy, and might also conceivably have holdings in natural history, alchemy, magic, witchcraft and demonology, astrology, and chiromancy. Editions of classical works of poetry, philosophy, and history might well also be found, as the lines between medical knowledge and other disciplines were less rigidly defined during the Renaissance than now. Works in all of these subject areas, including texts of Plato, Cicero, Tibullus, Thucydides, and Petrarch, are preserved in the rich array of incunables here at the Countway.

The famous names and the earliest editions of the great works in medicine, from Greek antiquity through the late medieval and Renaissance period, including Hippocrates, Celsus, Galen, Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, Ugo Benzi, Bernard of Gordon, Hieronymus Brunschwig, Guy de Chauliac, Marsilio Ficino, Michele Savonarola, and Johannes Trithemius, are all well represented in the collection. Sir William Osler, in his Incunabula medica (1923), identifies the De sermonum proprietate (Strassburg, circa 1467) of Rabanus Maurus as the first printed book containing a chapter devoted to medicine, and the Boston Medical Library holds a copy of even this rare item.

The Bullard Incunabula Collection at the Boston Medical Library, 1953

Along with medical texts, broadside almanacs and calendars documenting the appropriate or propitious days for bloodletting and purging were also commonly produced by printers in the fifteenth century; Sir William Osler believed a 1457 bleeding calendar from Mainz to be the very first example of a medical publication. With twenty-four specimens predating 1501, the series of almanacs held by the Boston Medical Library is the largest in the United States and one of the great jewels of the incunable collection.

William Norton Bullard (1853-1931)

William Norton Bullard in 1914

Assembled over the course of a century through purchase and donation, the Boston Medical Library's "library that never was" owes its existence and excellence, in large part, to the support, determination, and collecting expertise of Dr. William Norton Bullard. A native of Newport, Rhode Island, Bullard was a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. He specialized in neurology, becoming the physician for diseases of the nervous system at Boston City Hospital and the staff neurologist at Children's Hospital. He was also a founder and trustee of the State Hospital for Epileptics. In 1906, Dr. Bullard and his family established the Bullard Professorship of Neuropathology at Harvard Medical School.

In 1900, Dr. Bullard married Mary R. Reynolds, and together they began to assemble one of the world's most extraordinary private collections of early medical books, concentrating at first on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century titles, then turning later to the acquisition of incunabula. Dr. Bullard worked to build a collection with at least one edition of every medical work produced in the fifteenth century. In 1927, he established the Bullard Loan Collection of Incunabula at the Boston Medical Library, then donated his sixteenth- and seventeenth-century items the following year. At his death in 1931, Dr. Bullard bequeathed his incunabula—at that point over 200 titles—to the BML in conjunction with an endowment of $50,000 to be used for the acquisition of books and manuscripts predating 1700. This fund allowed the Library to continue to purchase choice items for its incunabula collection through the 1950s. The acquisition of over 500 of the fifteeners—more than half the collection—can be traced to the gift or bequest of Dr. Bullard.

Other Donors to the Collections

In addition to the generosity of William Norton Bullard, a number of other donors have increased the incunabula collections of the Boston Medical Library and the Harvard Medical Library over the years.

The virgin and the unicornOne of the first fifteeners acquired by the Boston Medical Library was the 1491 edition of the Fasciculus medicinae, the gift of Dr. John Homans (1836-1903), who purchased the volume at auction and then donated it to the collection in 1893. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was also a significant early contributor to the Boston Medical Library's collection, donating a 1489 edition of the Aphorisms of Maimonides and a 1490 Venetian printing of Avicenna's Canon medicinae. Most of the Harvard medical incunables are part of the bequest of Dr. John Warren (1874-1928), a collector of rare anatomical works and the last physician in direct descent from the famous Boston family of surgeons and teachers.

Other physicians and collectors who have augmented the collections include John Farquhar Fulton, William Gordon Lennox, Frederick Thomas Lewis, Jacob James Longacre, Henry Rouse Viets, and Paul Dudley White. A number of choice items were acquired from the estate of Wilfrid M. Voynich, a renowned antiquarian book dealer. A significant number of the Boston Medical Library incunables, along with some early manuscript items, were acquired through an endowment established by the Godfrey M. Hyams Trust in 1930 for the purchase of rare medical Judaica in honor of Solomon M. Hyams.

James Francis Ballard (1878-1955)

James Francis BallardWhile William Norton Bullard provided the impetus and means to collect and acquire incunabula, it was Librarian James F. Ballard who was able to carry out that design, refining and developing an already impressive collection through shrewd and knowledgeable acquisition. It was also Mr. Ballard who first produced a printed catalog of the Bullard Loan Collection and then went on to publish A Catalogue of the Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and Incunabula in the Boston Medical Library (1944), to date the only descriptive inventory of many of the fifteeners now here at the Countway Library.

James F. Ballard was associated with the Boston Medical Library for an extraordinary 63-year period, beginning work as an office boy in 1892 on a $3.00 per week salary, then rising to Assistant Librarian and, finally, in 1928, Director. Over the course of his tenure, he set about building the Boston Medical Library collection into one of the largest and finest in the country. In 1921, he devised and produced the first edition of a medical library classification scheme, later adopted by other institutions in the United States and abroad—and still in evidence in the stacks of the Countway today. Arnold C. Klebs, the authority on medical and scientific incunabula, said of James F. Ballard, "He is a remarkable example of the barbarian neo-humanist, kindly, devoted and ever helpful, evidently an excellent administrator and boss, a keen sleuth after antiquarian treasures; rough and untidy for himself but meticulous if not pedantic for all entrusted to him, superbly self-made in a job that needs multiple inspiration from living contacts."

Ballard's long service at the Boston Medical Library brought him into contact and even friendship with many of the luminaries of modern medical history, including Sir William Osler, Harvey Cushing, William H. Welch, and Henry Rouse Viets, themselves all important collectors of rare medical works and staunch advocates of medical libraries. One of James F. Ballard's earliest recollections of the library was meeting Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had come to compare his own copy of Johannes de Ketham's Fasciculus medicinae (1491) with the copy of the Boston Medical Library now here on display.

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